BEATING THE CORPORATE STRESS BLUES

So you’re feeling kind of stressed
And in need of a good rest,
And your heart is beating ninety to the dime;
Your brow and palms are sweating
And your trembling fingers letting
All and sundry know you’re running out of time.

When you not only kick the cats
But rush into continual spats
With a temper that is rising like a curse,
Is it not time for you to stop-
For de-stress remedies to shop-
Before you end up riding in a hearse?

However you look at it, stress is a killer. Estimates vary, but some studies suggest up to 90% of visitors to your common garden GP are either due to symptoms caused by or reflective of stress and anxiety. But why this modern pandemic? What has given rise to this alarmingly increasing phenomenon, and how do we deal with it? This article aims to cover some of these questions.

The signs and symptoms of stress are many and varied. The DSM4, the bible of mental health professionals, lists a separate broad category called Anxiety Disorders. However, some kind of stress and stressors underlie most of the functional psychiatric disorders, from depression to psychosis.

The causes of stress in our society are numerous, and range from societal to individual-centred explanations. The legendary book by Alvin Toffler referred to Future Shock, “the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” That was written way back in 1975. In 1998, when my personal computer becomes further outdated each time I brush my teeth, the change process is even more rapid. In fact, maybe this is the real millenium bug!

One of the other things we are subjected to in modern life is continual sensory input. From meeting too many people to remember in a basic day, to being passive recipients of muzak in stores, to TV’s and radios blaring, to the ongoing low-level (and sometimes LOUD!) environmental noise in the city, to being bombarded with adverts demanding attention all over, we suffer from sensory overload. Our nervous systems are not properly equipped to handle all of this successfully. It is no wonder many city dwellers have already, or are planning to, emigrated to the coast, where in some places the only thing to keep you awake is the crash of waves on the rock- and sand-mantled shores.

In fact, modern technology and consumerism in general have led to increased stress. Whereas before the industrial revolution, people were masters of their work (I would love to be non-sexist, but somehow “mistresses of their work” has a worrying stigma attached!), now the work is the boss. Recent research has shown major stress is caused to top business executives by just having to sort through and prioritize endless reams of material sent by snail and electronic mail. One of the most important psycho-analysts, Erich Fromm, put it really well:

“(Man) as a cog in the production machine becomes a thing and ceases to be human… the passiveness of man in industrial society today is one of his most characteristic and pathological features… being passive, he feels powerless, lonely and anxious.”

Other stressors in our society include the following:

Personal History: The famous Life Events Questionnaire allocates points to common stressful happening in our lives. We know from this that the death of a spouse, loss of a job, divorce, or even moving home rank near the top of events causing stress.

Poor eating habits: Although the source of some controversy, evidence seems to point to modern western diets of burgers and coke, pizzas and coke, sweets and coke, coke and coke, as leading to overactive behaviours and anxiety. The irony is that the very things we use to cope with our anxiety -cigarettes, alcohol, caffeine and sugar- actually exacerbate it.

Time Management: “So much to do, so little time.” Stressed modern executives and others often struggle to prioritize the demands made on them. And that is just in the work situation. American mytho-poetic men’s movement icon Robert Bly quotes research that shows that the average American man spends 10 minutes a day with his children. What kind of balanced lifestyle can be led when work eats into family time, time for friends, time for holidays and, worst of all, time to watch Ally McBeal?

Poverty: Contrary to some popular belief, research shows that unemployment and poverty are not what they are cracked up to be. While British psychologist Michael Argyle has proved that (in the words of the poets) “money caint buy you happiness”, it certainly is preferable to being in a constant struggle for survival.
Relationships: Our generally poor abilities to handle intimate and not-so-intimate relationships, and the conflict that goes with this lack, are an important cause of stress. In a corporate situation, poor relationships can make life hell. As, part from sleeping, work is one of the things we do most (apart from some extremists for whom eating, drinking, making love smoking or complaining about spouses is high on the list); this can be a serious situation. This is one of the reasons why there is so much emphasis now on team building within companies.

Fear: Fear and stress go together. And, in South Africa, of course, we are not only rugby world champions, but have the distinction of holding the global cup for violence and crime. Who wants to be second rate?! Out of our miserable history under Apartheid to the present, many victims of brutality are still suffering the scars of PostTraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While these come out of particularly traumatic events, a new term has been coined -Ongoing Stress Disorder- to describe the reaction to continual low-level stressors, such as living in the ganglands, or with the threat of nuclear extinction.
A question of balance: Psychiatrist Carl Jung, one of the most influential 20th Century philosophers of the human condition, has described how the West’s one-sided overemphasis on rational thinking is a major cause of neurosis. The exclusion, indeed, suppression, of intuitive and emotional forces, leads to totally imbalanced beings, cut off from whole parts of ourselves. This Macdonald’s culture continually erodes the wellsprings of indigenous cultures, which are based upon integrative depth. It is no accident that family murders, once a preserve of white Afrikaans males, now permeate all of our society. When rationality at its extreme takes over from meaning, our lives are but empty shells.

TO COPE OR NOT TO COPE:

So why do some people handle stress well, (and it is important to note that some stress is an essential part of the human condition, pulling us from our comfort zones into achievements of all kinds) whereas others struggle, manifesting all kinds of symptoms and acting out behaviors? One of the most well known theories to explain this was that of “Type A & B personality types”. Type A is supposed to be highly-strung, tense, continually on the go, and prone to stress and, eventually, heart attacks. Type B is more relaxed, casual, takes life as it comes, and is therefore likely to live longer. Looked at closely, this is the difference between the stereotypical Joburger and Capetonian. The former is likely to be on cocaine to keep moving, the latter on marijuana to chill out! But this typology is really a description rather than an explanation.

Dr Victor Frankl, caged in a Nazi concentration camp, invested everything he did, all that happened, with a meaning. He emerged from (I think) Auschwitz wiser, and established a small but important school of psychology in the existential mould. Many others, after liberation were crushed human beings, many unable to ever talk about their horrific experiences. The difference, it would seem, has to do with what Michael Rotter called “Locus of Control”. His scale measured the degree to which individuals feel that their behaviour is determined by their own choosing (Internal Locus of Control), or by external forces beyond their control such as luck, fate or the influence of powerful others (External Locus). Internals such as Frankl see themselves as having choice and can thus act in the world, whereas externals are perpetual victims. Attitude is thus a major factor in susceptibility and experience of stress. But whereas the formation of attitudes is complex, depending on early life experiences, role models, etc., attitudes CAN be changed over time. People can learn coping styles that work. Which brings us to the final section: How exactly DO we manage our stress and live happily ever after?

MANAGING TO MANAGE YOUR STRESS:

As there are different stress coping styles, so are there different stress management modalities for different people. Some will need to do yoga, play chess or meditate, in order to elicit what Herbert Benson called the “Relaxation Response”. Yet others may find chopping wood, running, making love and other activities that produce physiological arousal, relaxing. There is no blanket stencil; the method must fit the individual. We need to distinguish here between de-stressing that is preventative -in a sense stress inoculation- and that which is curative -when you already are in trouble. Many methods could serve as both, which means that, if taught at school as Life Skills, we could improve our coping skills and handle stress better from an early age. In no particular order, here are some of them:

Societal influences:

If modern industrial society tends to isolate and alienate us, and make us passive (to be good, unquestioning consumers?), as Fromm so eloquently claims, then we need to address this. We need to create post-industrial conscious communities, to empower others and ourselves to recognize the relatedness that dwells in those suppressed, non-rational sides of our brains and personalities. Admittedly, the end of anomie may take longer than another few days, so we need to address other issues at the same time! So, Life Skills training becomes essential. Included in the programme would be Assertiveness training, teaching the ability to use your personal power to communicate effectively and constructively who you are and what you desire.

Psycho-Physiological techniques:

The “psycho-physiological principle” stares that “every change in the physiological state is accompanied by an appropriate change in the mental-emotional state”, and vice versa. What this means is that we can tackle stress and anxiety at different levels of the body-mind. A whole range of activities have been shown by research to lead to reduced oxygen consumption, respiration rates, heart rates, arterial lactate concentrations, slower EEG brain waves, etc. Anxiety and tension are reduced by these methods, leading to increased feelings of psychological balance and well being. These methods include meditation -sitting still and either focusing the attention on a specific object or idea or mantra sound (Concentrative meditations), or opening awareness to the full range of consciousness (Insight Meditations), Progressive Relaxation and Autogenic Training (focusing on release of muscular tension), Biofeedback (using feedback from a special machine to maintain the optimal relaxed mind state), Yoga, Massage (“Different strokes for different folks”) and exercise. A month ago, I spent over an hour in a covered enclosed contraption called a Flotation Tank, where I floated on top of a buoyant solution of Epsom salts. It is known by the acronym R.E.S.T., which stands for Reduced Environmental Stimulus Therapy. Apart from some piped music at the beginning and end, I lay in the dark in this confined space that some may find a dash claustrophobic, listening to the sounds of my breathing ad heart-beat. My muscles, free of the surly bonds of gravity, released like gently whispering clouds, as the slightly slimy salt solution supported me. This brief time of sensory deprivation, if done at least weekly, would seem to provide some antidote to the sensory overload referred to at the beginning of this article. I emerged totally relaxed, if somewhat out of it, and had to drive slowly and deliberately, so as to remind myself I was still merely mortal. The ‘merely mortal’ is no clever turn of phrase. What some of the above practices do is to in a sense dis-identify ourselves with our inflated egos -the cause of much stress and dis-ease in the first place – and remind us that we are also physical, social and spiritual beings. With that comes increased holism and meaning in our lives. Abraham Mazlow wrote about these “Peak Experiences”, when we experience something that is bigger and deeper than our previously limited self-perceptions.

All of the above are of relevance in a corporate context. As Stephen Covey asserts in his Seven Habits of Highly effective People, unless we have personal mastery, we cannot be truly effective as team members or as leaders. However, there are other specific techniques of much use within the corporate context. For example, if I have trouble prioritizing, I may need to do a Time Management course, so I can learn the 80:20 principle, to put most of my energy into the 20% that matters. As a team, strategic planning sessions may fulfill this role. Or, if there is conflict in the workplace, it may be necessary to bring in a facilitator to give conflict management skills, or to run Diversity workshops where issues of race, rank or gender exist, however subtly. Team building may help to bring the satisfaction and support which comes from being part of an effective and caring corporate community. This in itself may relieve stress: to know that others are sharing the load and the goals.

Therapy: Where it is too late for prevention, cure is necessary. This helps to make conscious and reintegrate those aspects of ourselves that we have blocked off because of trauma or defence. Specific therapies suit specific issues -for example, therapy for PTSD is different to that for depression.
Finally, you deserve to spend some time purely on yourself. There are several health hydros dotted around the country (the most famous being High Rustenberg Hydro in Stellenbosch, which is attended religiously every year by such as Mangosothu Buthulezi). Here you can relax, detox, and have all the latest health treatments, doll. Given the money (get the company to pay!), why not treat yourself?

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